dkSez : : : : : : Don Kahle's blog

Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

Why do people say 'after dark' when what they mean is 'during dark'? After dark would be when it's light again, right? * There are 10 types of people in this world -- those who read binary, and those who don't. * I'm rethinking the whole brown rice thing. What if it's just more white liberal self-hatred? Whole wheat, honey, unbleached flour. All better. Sez who? * Eugene should be HQ for White People for Diversity. We'll fight for diversity to be included in books, which is where we know to look for it. * Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but give a man a pillow, and he'll dream of steak. * What can you say about a state that puts the town of North Bend 225 miles southwest of Bend? We rely on visitors for entertainment.

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Cynicism Springs from Shaded Truths

May 22nd, 2015 · No Comments

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It can’t be easy finding the right words to lead a community filled with too many English and liberal arts majors. We pay careful attention, catching details that might slip past others. When chosen words are defended as merely imprecise or inartful, the hole being dug just gets deeper. If followers find themselves more attentive than their leaders, bad things can happen.

My son, for instance, approached Lane County’s proposed vehicle fee increase with an open mind. He thumbed through the voter’s guide, read the ballot description, and asked his father for advice. In the end, he voted against the measure because of one word: “modestly.”

“I just paid my registration fee and it wasn’t much,” he told me. “Now they want an extra 35 dollars per year? That’s not a lot of money, but I don’t think you can refer to it as ‘modestly increasing.’”

He came back to me later in the day, having done more research. “I paid $86 — and that was for two years. An extra $70 would almost double that amount. Who chose the word ‘modest’ to describe an 81.3 percent increase?”

Once voters are calculating your veracity with decimals, you’ve lost control of the conversation. The measure failed. No decimals required.

Both Eugene school board incumbents won reelection this week, but not by the usual amount. At least some vote loss can be attributed to another attempt to shade the truth, as if an honest appraisal would drive the public to its collective feinting couch.

The board hired a superintendent who didn’t end up being a very good fit. The employment contract they signed with Sheldon Berman had some expensive buy-out provisions. Both sides agreed that a voluntary departure would be cheaper and more palatable, and that no one needed to know the details of those negotiations.

So was he fired? Or did he quit? (Wait, he’s still here.) Even after losing a public records lawsuit, the school board tried to hide those details. It wasn’t until one of their attorneys accidentally sent along the contested documents without redactions that the truth was learned.

We haven’t learned (yet) how University of Oregon president Michael Gottfredson’s departure was negotiated. Lane Transit District announced that General Manager Ron Kilcoyne has decided to retire, but details quickly emerged that he’s looking for another job. If they meant to include air quotes around the word “retire,” those got lost along the way.

And then there’s the dog that didn’t bark — or bite. Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner won’t press charges against Larry LaThorpe for running a red light in Thurston, killing three children. Gardner defended his decision using the phrases “unwittingly ran a red light” and “brief inattention.” Something doesn’t quite add up.

If Oregon doesn’t have a criminal statue for involuntary or vehicular manslaughter, that would be relevant information here. If Gardner’s office is so short-staffed that only open-and-shut cases can be pursued, again, the public has a right to know.

It’s possible that the children began crossing the street before the light turned or that some piece of safety equipment did not function properly, but denying the public any relevant bits of information only creates other problems.

Cynicism is a habit of thought. It can start in places where the truth may not matter, but then spread into places where it does. Executive hirings and firings don’t directly concern us, but crossing the street does.

Will our safety require legislative or funding changes? Will those changes be more than modest? Hard questions.

Sometimes it’s easiest to start with the smallest instance and work up from there. Since adding a regional redemption center, some grocery stores have begun limiting the number of cans or bottles they redeem.

The poster announcing the change begins, “As required by Oregon State Law (ORS459A.737),….” In this case, the fib is in the second word.

I’ve read ORS459A.737. It allows a limit of 24 cans or bottles per day. It does not require it. Change one word and the poster would be telling the truth. But somebody believes we can’t handle even a nickel’s worth of truth.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Tracktown USA: Improving for the Long Run

May 15th, 2015 · 6 Comments

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Let’s talk about running wild. Eugene is learning how to pride itself as Tracktown USA. Let’s be sure we get it right for the long run — 5K, 10K, even 26.2 miles.

Decades of longsuffering is shaping itself into an enduring legacy. It sounds like an oxymoron, but distance running requires patience. If you go too fast, you can’t go too long. Learning to run more requires learning not to rush more.

Eugene’s “Mount Run More” has four colossal faces looking down on us.

Famed track coach Bill Bowerman loved running. He loved it more than winning. Jogging, which he introduced to this continent, was running without a race. Elitism has its place in athletics, but Bowerman himself didn’t care for it. He detested trophies. He made it a point not to keep them. Whatever he accomplished, in his view, left memories and built character. That was reward enough for him.

Bowerman built his best track teams by developing undiscovered talents. He plucked Steve Prefontaine from a hardscrabble Oregon lumber town and taught him technique. Prefontaine electrified his followers. His charisma demanded your attention and his speed gave you no choice but to follow. Bowerman taught him patience. If you’re always improving, then winning may not come immediately, but it will come naturally.

In fact, if Bowerman had focused only on his very best athletes, he might have overlooked an ambitious middle-distance runner with only above-average potential. Luckily for Oregon, Bowerman took that kid under his wing, gave him a few hundred dollars and his waffle-iron shoe sole design, and the company that became Nike was born.

Finally, Vin Lananna is bringing a technocratic precision to assembling Tracktown USA. We now host some of the world’s most prestigious track meets, but we must not overlook last Sunday’s Eugene Marathon, considered by many to be the ideal race for first-time marathoners. The root of our pride has been and must remain Bowerman’s “all comers” invitation and his “always improving” attitude.

Thanks to the conviction of Bowerman, the passion of Prefontaine, the vision of Lananna, and the resources of Nike co-founder Phil Knight, Eugene is learning to run wild. Their chiseled approval forms our Mount Run More.

There’s a hidden heroism in simply completing a marathon — especially in a culture where many of us consider it a triumph if we finish reading the day’s newspaper in a single sitting.

We can’t know how many marathon runners finished Sunday’s race with their best time ever. Conditions were near ideal, so chances are good that many returned home with that deep satisfaction of never having done better.

University of Oregon Head Football Coach Mark Helfrich puts it this way. When it’s “You versus Yesterday,” no one is rooting for Yesterday.

Thousands of Eugene residents lined the race route, cheering for strangers. Is there any other competitive sport where the connection between athlete and audience is more intimate? Where else could one spectator make eye contact with a thousand competitors in less than an hour?

Race organizers can be congratulated for a near-flawless plan to accompany the perfect weather. Traffic cones were set out in the dead of night. An army of volunteers knew their roles and performed them with joy.

I heard only one complaint, but it’s worth passing along. It concerns those finishing last. Shortly before the official course time limit of seven hours had passed, things were winding down. The chocolate milk was gone or getting warm. Volunteers were modeling efficiency by gathering up decorations, but racers were still finishing the course.

Let’s be sure the race’s last finishers see the same Hayward Field as the winners saw, hours earlier.

We cannot know what personal accomplishments were being recorded on Sunday at 1:59 PM in Hayward Field, but we’ll better ourselves if we show them as much respect as those who finished first. We want every racer to finish strong, as much as they are able.

Did they believe they could complete a marathon in less than seven hours? Maybe not, but once they allowed their imagination to run wild, amazing things could happen.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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PERS Retirement Funding Prompts Creative Solutions

May 8th, 2015 · No Comments

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University of Oregon architecture students from a generation ago will remember the name Gil Farsnow. None will remember the elusive student, but all will remember his work. During terminal reviews, his work would be pinned on the walls along with other students’. He regularly offered solutions the other students hadn’t dared to consider.

One Gil Farsnow solution gets retold more than any other. The university’s science labs had a problem. Lumber trucks on nearby Franklin Boulevard were causing vibrations that disrupted ultra-sensitive microscopes and other devices. The university couldn’t relocate the lab building, so what design changes could address this problem?

Students studied seismic retrofits, hydraulic baffles, and lateral reinforcements. Farsnow offered none of those. He recommended the university drape the building’s north face, visible from Franklin, with a large movie screen. He then proposed that the university project onto that screen a continuous loop of pornography.

Farsnow reasoned that truck drivers would want to watch the movies, so they would drive past the university very, very slowly. Their reduced speed would curtail the vibrations enough that no other accommodations would be required. Problem solved!

Farsnow may have earned enough credits to graduate, but his refusal to ever be seen prevented him from graduating. I tracked him down in his basement apartment this week to see if he had any clever solutions for a seemingly unsolvable problem.

“Oregon courts have thrown out any substantial changes to tier one recipients of the Public Employee Retirement System,” I told him. “The proposed reforms were supposed to save the state $5 billion over 20 years, but the court said no.”

Farsnow was up on the topic. “They didn’t say no. They said ‘not yet.’ Bankruptcy remains an option. Only bankruptcy courts allow contracts to be renegotiated. If the state has money, it has to pay. The simplest solution would be to quickly run out of money. It worked for Detroit — why not here?”

“Bankruptcy seems like a terrible outcome. Can’t impending doom be enough?” I asked.

“Nope,” he told me. “Bankruptcy must be endured, not averted.”

“No state has ever gone bankrupt. Could we really do that?”

“Only one way to find out,” Farsnow replied. “Oregon likes trailblazing. Trouble is, a blaze can quickly grow into a wildfire. So I have a couple other ideas.”

I knew I had come to the right place, even if it was a disconcertingly dark place.

Farsnow continued. “This is impolite to say, but it’s now 3.6 million Oregonians against 331,000 PERS members. It’s us against them.”

“But I like them,” I pleaded. “Some of my favorite people are PERS recipients.”

“Do you want to solve the problem or not?” Farsnow snapped. “Just because we mail every PERS retiree a free case of cigarettes every week, that doesn’t mean they have to smoke them. That would be completely up to them. We could offer them free camping passes during fire season, PERS-only passing lanes on mountain roads, and special petting privileges at Oregon zoos before feeding times. Did you know a salami rope can make a fetching bolo tie?”

I could feel the basement getting even darker. “Gil, you’re frightening me. Could you dial it back a bit?”

He smiled. “Sure. Sell PERS-only lottery tickets. Make some special retiree a certified millionaire every week, but only after putting a couple million dollars first into our chronically underfunded schools. Or ask retailers to sell PERS-only extended warranties, with a good kickback to the state, of course. Let them give our state-supported elderly that special peace of mind that comes with a five-year replacement policy for the dustpan they’ll need while they’re cleaning up in retirement.”

I had to try to defend the retirees. “They worked hard for our state. We should treat them with respect,” I claimed.

“OK,” Farsnow relented. “But they won’t live forever. How about building PERS-only cemeteries on the avalanche-prone sides of some of our most majestic peaks? These plots would be expensive, but they would offer great views and unparalleled comfort — but only until the inevitable happens. Because it will.”


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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One Teacher Who Made a Difference

May 1st, 2015 · 21 Comments

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Published on May 1, 2015 in The Register-Guard (Eugene, Oregon)

I barely recognized her, but nursing homes are helpful in this way. The placard by her door read “Mrs. Patricia Elmen,” so I knew this was my favorite high school English teacher, despite her bloated cheeks and chin, her discolored teeth, her vacant stare.

I called ahead this week during a visit to Chicago. The nursing home staff suggested I come after her nap, but before dinnertime. If they had used the term “feeding time,” I would have been better prepared. Mrs. Elmen taught us that concision comes from using the right words.

Since she had a couple of strokes a few years ago, Pat has been bed-ridden. She can’t feed herself. What they called “dinnertime” amounted to a nurse spooning pureed food into her. I felt sad and a little frightened when I walked in.

Neural damage causes her to speak loudly, in bursts. I was warned she doesn’t remember much, but I don’t think that’s quite true. It was as if her memories no longer link together, causing her to ask a question again when the context changes.

“What year did you graduate!” She hollers her questions like a drill sergeant. I reply softly, “1975,” hoping she could hear the difference. She couldn’t. “That was a good year! How old are you!” Math isn’t easy for her now, if it ever was. “57,” I replied. We exchanged smiles.

“You’re a puppy! You’re all puppies! You’re my puppies! I love my job! I love my job! That was a good year!” She called us “puppies” back then. Even though many of us had sisters older than her, we couldn’t see it. She was an adult and we were not. That was as much sense as we could make of things.

Pat had no children — only “puppies.” If she was teaching today, she might be reprimanded for not taking every precaution with us. She played favorites. She once invited us into her mobile home. We knew it by its nickname.

“The tin can! The tin can! I love my puppies!”

She gave her favorite students a dictionary when they graduated. I still have mine.

She taught us that words matter — “Be careful what you call things.” She, for example, was Mrs. Elmen. But after graduation, she was Pat. None of us looked forward to the dictionary, but we all wanted to call her Pat. It’s only occurring to me now how those two gifts were connected.

I was a terrified teenager, which is probably redundant. Without a father or older siblings, I was feeling my way forward when Pat made me one of her “puppies.” She often would drive me to my part-time job after school, sitting and talking with me in the parking lot.

“How are your brothers! How is your Mom!”

Those might have been the same questions she asked me in the parking lot 40 years ago. My Dad never came up, then or now. I’m sure she knew, and probably still knows. She always paid attention.

“My nose itches!” She was explaining why she was raising her arm toward her face. She shakes, so her arm is more reliable than her hand. The moment her forearm brushed her nose, I could see only her catlike eyes, slanted toward the bridge of her nose. With no worry lines above her brows, her face looked playful, almost mischievous.

Forty years from now, I may have words to describe that familiarity. I’m still her puppy.

We knew the barrier between us and adulthood; she built us a bridge. Breaking with the tradition of the time, she told us her first name, while playfully forbidding its use.

When the strokes hit, many wondered whether she would survive. But she still looks forward to every day, watching the news, chatting with visitors, waiting for dinnertime.

“I don’t want to die early! I want to die late!” We put her desire into school language together. “I want to be tardy! Tardy would be OK! Tardy would be good!”

Be tardy, Pat. Keep reminding us of the rules and teach us how to break them.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs. This post was modified in several places based on information provided by those closest to her.

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Merging Visions of Highway Safety

April 24th, 2015 · 1 Comment

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Television’s favorite faux newscaster Jon Stewart is leaving his Nerf-style anchor chair on August 9. I wonder what he’d think of pending Oregon legislation proposed by Beaverton Democrat, Rep. Ken Helm.

Salem is in the middle of what some Capitol-watchers call “silly season.” Lawmakers converge in Salem ready to make laws. Usually the important laws take time and negotiation, so the early months are filled with smaller matters — naming the official state soil, stuff like that.

Many of these small bills often seem an odd mix of vanity and common sense, and Helm’s tweak for highway driving habits is no different. Helm believes highways will be safer if we punish “left-lane hoggers” — drivers who stay in the left lane, preventing others from passing. Traffic flows best — when it’s actually flowing and not congested — when drivers use the left lane only for passing slower vehicles.

Stewart might notice Helm’s effort because highway driving figured prominently in what may have been Stewart’s apex appearance in the role he’s played for the last 16 years. Shortly before the 2010 national election, Stewart and Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert co-hosted their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC.

A quarter million fans showed up on the National Mall and Stewart had the last word. He used it to chastise lawmakers for not compromising on behalf of the American people. Stewart drove home his point with a video clip showing people driving home. Every day, drivers enter highway traffic, peacefully merging — yielding, compromising — with fellow highway drivers.

It was an intentionally modest and unglamorous image. He was channeling Rodney King’s famous plea: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Sadly, the answer seems to be, more and more, “No. We can’t.”

Lane County now has half a dozen on-ramp metered traffic lights to relieve drivers of just the sort of self-judgment that Stewart applauded. Left-turn arrows on traffic lights have been with us as long as we’ve had traffic congestion, but lately we’ve added blinking yellow left arrows at certain intersections.

When drivers have to be reminded to use caution before turning left in front of oncoming traffic, there’s reason to despair. No wonder Jon Stewart is walking away from The Daily Show.

So we may need Helm’s bill. Or maybe we need just part of it.

Helm’s bill would provide $80,000 for educational signage, reminding highway drivers about the law. But the same amount could be used to remind drivers of the current law and have nearly the same effect. State law already prohibits drivers from impeding “the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” If only we had broader agreement of what’s “normal and reasonable” — that’s the oncoming traffic that Helm’s bill is attempting to turn left against.

Highway driving is in fact a complex task. Individual safety is optimized by adhering to two rules that sometimes conflict. Drivers should not drive faster than the speed limit, while also making room (on their left) for those who do.

This is the formula for individual safety. System-wide safety is higher if nobody speeds, but it’s literally optimized if everybody just walks to wherever they are going. Highways inherently represent a conflict between safety and speed.

Why does a driver need to be reminded to not be a jerk? It’s a fair question, but there’s a fair answer.

Automakers market their products based on more and more creature comforts. Drivers of late-model cars have near-total control inside their vehicle. Air flow, temperature, seat tilt and firmness, cupholder position, music, lighting — they all are controlled by the driver. Meanwhile, surrounding this cocoon of comfort, “objects are closer than they appear.”

Drivers feel increasingly detached from external conditions — including other drivers. If a driver is honking his horn, just turn up the volume of your sound system. If he’s blinking his lights to get your attention, simply dim them in your rearview mirror. If a driver displays anger at you, play your favorite happy music.

Drivers are more likely to become careless when their driving environment is designed to give them fewer cares.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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Encourage Affordability By Attacking Gentrification

April 18th, 2015 · 3 Comments

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If you want to take a difficult discussion and make it an impossible one, add affordable housing aspirations to the topic of land use planning. Short of Soviet-style price controls or saintly benevolence, there are no good ways to guarantee housing prices that enough people would consider affordable.

Helping citizens with education, retraining and employment opportunities to make more money has a better track record, but there too there are no guaranteed outcomes.

For decades, local governments piled affordable housing units into specific locations. Those neighborhoods quickly became unattractive and eventually uninhabitable. Housing remained affordable for the simple reason that nobody wanted to live there.

New York City lately has required skyscraper developers to add affordable units, but the mentality of “keep poor people away from us” continued. All the subsidized unit residents were given separate entrances — the “poor door.” Management barred them from using most of the buildings’ amenities.

If you let the free market do the work by making bare land cheaper, land speculators will swoop in. They calculate the gap between what the land costs today and what it’ll be worth tomorrow. Before long, competition bids up the price of land to where it was before government intervened.

Should we throw up our hands and give up the fight? Not quite.

Affordable housing is certainly a worthy goal. Recent academic work has shown that America’s widening wealth gap is being driven by a homeownership gap. Raising minimum wages helps a little. Controlling rent increases can help some too. But what makes a large and lasting difference is getting people into homes they own.

Once they step onto the equity escalator, their wealth can grow even if their salaries do not. Getting that first mortgage is the hardest.

Affordability, in a free-market economy, is like the personal virtue of humility. If you aim for it, you’ll miss it every time. It emerges only after you’ve wrestled with other issues.

Fortunately, affordable housing has an evil twin. It’s called gentrification. It drives residents out of neighborhoods they no longer can afford. The free market has gotten very good at promoting UN-affordable housing.

How can city planners combat gentrification? This is a wonderfully complex and intriguing question. If you grant (only some will) that market forces are always rational (a.k.a. “efficient”), then the question becomes: “How do you boost irrationality?”

We know that if one or two homeowners simply refuse to sell, the area grows differently. It becomes richer — socially, if not always economically. The diversity of incomes makes it a more interesting place.

What makes somebody simply refuse to sell, no matter what the price? It’s usually a mix of civic and family pride. How can we fuel that irrationality?

(Pride itself is thoroughly irrational, but we don’t need to go there right now.)

Here’s my suggestion. Heterogeneity is difficult to measure on the input end, so it’s difficult to manage. The surest path to an anti-gentrification program is a variety of housing sizes. Put a few 200-square-foot apartments above the garages of a few $400K houses and, bingo, you have diversity.

Portland is waiving system development charges for auxiliary dwelling units for the next year or two. A gentler approach is to scale SDCs and property taxes to the square footage. They’re hoping to encourage tiny houses, alley units, in-law apartments and other alternatives — but not too many of them. Neighborhoods rightfully want to protect their character.

Bend has an inventive approach. They are trying to combat a a different sort of blight. They may deny a rental license if another has already been granted within a 250-foot radius of the home. They hope to prevent vacationers from overrunning entire neighborhoods.

We can learn from our neighboring cities.

We will continue to give people reasons to love living here. Home values will appreciate. The equity gained from that first house — even if it’s only a few hundred square feet — can subsidize the next house.

Once residents step onto the equity escalator, the uphill climb toward prosperity and economic security becomes less arduous.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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You Can’t Spell UGB Without Arithmetic

April 10th, 2015 · 2 Comments

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Academic controversies have a certain rhythm to their popularity. When new ideas are offered, many of us line up in support because we like what’s shiny and new. There’s nothing quite like that “new idea smell.” Once the novelty wears off and the idea becomes familiar, we forget about it until somebody offers a counterpoint, often packaged as the new new idea.

So it has been with the education industry’s recent infatuation with STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. We need to train more engineers, so Google and Facebook can hire more Americans.

Now comes the backlash, aiming to stem the STEM tide. As Eugene teacher Dave Sheehan wrote in last paper’s Sunday Commentary section, “By the eighth grade, 90 percent of us have learned just about as much math as we’re ever going to use in our lives.”

Sheehan is undoubtedly correct about what we’ve learned. I’m more concerned about what we’ve forgotten.

Portland State University’s Population Research Center recently released their projections for our area’s population growth. They are projecting that Eugene will add 40,000 new residents by 2035, to our current population of 185,000. Veneta is projected to add 2,500 people over the same time period to its current base of 5,200.

If those estimates are correct, Veneta will grow at twice the pace of Eugene over the next 20 years. And so, this newspaper’s recent headline on Page One was technically correct: “Big cities outpaced by small towns.” But that’s different than winning the race.

Rate of expansion, in this case, is as interesting as it is meaningless for how we live our lives. The raw number of people matters, because those people compete for our jobs or become our customers or get in line ahead of us at the grocery store. The percentage of people arriving just sits on a spreadsheet and stays there.

Let’s not confuse the rate of expansion with the actual number of people settling in each town. That’s like confusing the Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player awards.

Wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd wasn’t the Ducks’ best football player last season; quarterback Marcus Mariota was. Mariota was quite a bit better in 2014 than he was in 2013, but Lloyd was infinitely better in 2014 than the previous year, when he was playing basketball.

Now back to PSU’s growth predictions.

The pace of growth is calculated by dividing the number of new people in each town (the numerator) by the number of people already living there (the denominator). Yes, Veneta is projected to grow twice as fast as Eugene. No, Veneta is not projected to add twice as many people as Eugene.

In fact, I ran the numbers. If the two cities’ growth rates continue forever at PSU’s estimates, Veneta will indeed begin adding more residents than Eugene — in 364 years! So it’ll be a while before Eugene is actually losing the foot race to Veneta.

This is not a misunderstanding without consequence. Eugene is currently wrestling with whether and how to expand its Urban Growth Boundary. It’s not uncommon to hear people claim, “If we don’t make more room for them in Eugene, all those people will just go buy homes in Veneta.”

If by “all” they mean “most,” they are referring to the year 2378. If by “all” they mean “some,” that’s always been true. Here’s what’s true right now. For every person who settles in Veneta, 16 other people choose Eugene.

Yes, it’s true that Veneta currently offers less expensive housing, but that won’t stay true forever. Local roads eventually will become congested. Sewer systems will reach capacity. Expanding Veneta’s capacity will someday become expensive, forcing taxes up or quality of life down. Either way, expansion slows.

As an architect once told me, “Urban planning would be a fun hobby, but you’d have to live 200 years to get any satisfaction from it.”

I’m not saying Eugene should or shouldn’t expand its Urban Growth Boundary. I’m saying we should remember whatever math we learned in eighth grade and use it.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Eugene’s Gross Domestic Laughter Index is Rising

April 3rd, 2015 · 7 Comments

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The Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce and The Register-Guard hosted their annual Economic Forecast this week, bringing some of the state’s top economists together to assess Lane County’s recent history and future prospects.

I wasn’t at the event on Monday. I joined a different panel of experts the night before, as one of a half dozen judges for Lane County’s 20th Annual Laff Off, choosing the area’s funniest person.

As it turns out, both panels came to the same conclusion.

Economists look at reams of data — unemployment numbers, construction permits, vacancy rates, airport traffic. These and many other factors were considered before they stepped onto the Hilton stage.

They pronounced our region healthy and thriving in ways unseen in their 21 years of analyses. As long as we continue to gain, train and retain talented workers, they see a bright future ahead.

The night before we confirmed there’s plenty of talent here. The two surveys should be taken together. Quantity of output and quality of life — who’d really want one without the other?

Economists quantified our area’s productivity and efficiency. As Laff Off judges, we did something similar. Our scoring can get quite technical, so don’t worry if it sounds overly complex. After 20 years, we’re trained professionals. We determined whether everyone was having a good time.

“Right now, Eugene is a hotbed of comedy and tonight’s Laff Off proved it,” announced organizer Leigh Anne Jasheway. “So many comics were equal to, or better than, those anywhere in the country!”

We deemed the local comedic workforce so talented that we gave the “funniest person” honor this year to two people instead of one.

Zachary Fish confessed that he’s unable to keep up with all the characters his daughter tracks during “My Little Pony” episodes, choosing instead to preserve his finite mental resources for doing his job at Lane Transit District and paying household bills.

“Sometimes I feel like the Apollo 13 crew, trying to get home on limited power: ‘We can turn everything off and just barely get back to earth. Or we can microwave a Hot Pocket. Mmmm! A Hot Pocket sounds pretty good right now.’” I’ve never heard a better metaphor for modern man’s daily dilemma.

Then there was Fish’s co-champion, Lucy Glass, who wished she had the skills of a ventriloquist, only so she could carry on a conversation with her dentist during her checkup. She added gratuitous difficulty to her five-minute routine by structuring some of her jokes as haiku, just to show she could — or almost could.

In 20 years of evaluating local comedic talent, I’ve never seen a stronger line-up. One third of the 22 comedians who took the stage could have been crowned funniest in any other year. We saw both depth of insights and breadth of styles.

More importantly, the audience loved it. I’m not talking about polite laughter, tossing chuckles at craven beggars holding microphones. This was spontaneous, involuntary, physically contorted laughter. The full house at Actors Cabaret left exhausted from appreciation.

We heard how hard it is for a lesbian who is over 6 feet tall and built like a lumberjack to find love in Lane County. We were asked why it’s considered necessary to wash our hands after — but not before — using the restroom. Or why doesn’t offer recommendations for vasectomies.

Sometimes you can see the edginess better than the edges themselves. We’ve definitely widened our scope of discourse over the past 20 years, but it cannot easily be quantified. If it was tallied and shown as a pie chart, it should land on somebody’s face.

We laugh harder, and at more things, than we used to. We take ourselves less seriously. That makes everything a little bit easier.

Whether it’s getting incorrect change at McDonald’s, feeling offended by somebody’s political incorrectness, or losing your turn at a busy four-way stop sign, life is easier if there’s a smile somewhere in it. That preserves our energy — expressed here in haiku:

More for what matters — building our collective wealth — not that Hot Pocket.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Campaigning Builds a Skill Most of Us Lack

March 27th, 2015 · 6 Comments

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It doesn’t matter who placed the call and it barely matters what her concern was — the call and the gripe both are that common. She had just returned from a Eugene City Council work session and she was frustrated. It could just as well have been a school board or a county commissioners meeting.

She called me because I “always have an unusual perspective.” I didn’t disappointed her.

“The city councilors are all good people,” she began, “but they don’t know enough about this particular topic to make good decisions.” Again, the topic is not relevant. I’ve heard the same complaint around building codes, tax policies, transportation engineering, noise abatement, and animal control. “I wish there was a way to make them take a class [on the topic at hand] before they ever cast a vote on city policy.”

Then she got to her felt pain. “We’ve done so much work on this topic. We’ve devoted so many hours to it. It’s really hard to see them wave our opinions away, to dismiss them so easily. How can we get them to respect us?”

Hers was a heartfelt and genuine quandary. I confess my response was more rhetorical than her question.

“Have you ever knocked on a hundred strangers’ doors on a Saturday afternoon? I know I haven’t,” I said.

“Me neither,” she replied, unsure where I was going.

“Elected officials have done that, literally,” I said. “In some ways they are doing it all the time — answering emails from people they don’t know, getting quoted in newsletters read by people they’ve never met. Would you agree that’s a skill?”

“I can see that,” she replied.

“Isn’t it a skill we don’t have?”


“Can we respect them for that skill?” Now she could see where I was going.

We are more likely to see that trait in a negative light. We may admire the hard work involved, but we can’t fathom what would drive somebody to spend their Saturday talking to strangers on their doorsteps.

Just because it’s foreign to us doesn’t mean we can’t respect others for it. Respect is a two-way street, so the best way to get it is to give it first. I know that’s simple to say and hard to do, but it’s true.

Knocking on all those doors teaches someone certain things about this community — and about themselves — that you and I may not know.

They’ve learned to formulate policy positions that accommodate a wide range of opinions. They’ve learned how to make alliances around certain issues to expedite other issues. They’ve learned what matters most deeply to them and to their supporters.

A good politician can be like a tuning fork, quickly finding the frequency that communicates with the most clarity. The best ones can do that without ever betraying their own values and beliefs.

Sometimes they ask the public to weigh in on an issue. Or they survey in private those they consider to be a representative sample. Or they simply follow their conscience, knowing that their constituents will use the ballot box to voice their views.

Most issues we face have at least three dimensions of complexity. Staff and legal counsel can tell them what’s allowed or required. Activists, staff professionals and civic volunteers can weigh in on what may be technically possible, or what other communities have done.

How any particular solution will be viewed by the public — analyzing that political dimension is what our elected officials must do. No amount of technical or regulatory clarity can substitute for anticipating how it will play to the people.

We need our best talent addressing each dimension of any complex problem, respecting what the others have contributed and moving forward together.

The last speech I ever heard Dave Frohnmayer give described how his political campaigns taught him empathy. Learning how “to read a room” also made him a better father, professor, dean, and college president.

He quoted Lyndon Johnson’s complaint about John F. Kennedy’s “brightest and best” technocrats who got us militarily mired in Vietnam: “I wish just one of them had run for dogcatcher once.”


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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There’s a Job Hillary Would Like Better

March 20th, 2015 · 13 Comments

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Elizabeth Warren was walking with one of her aides between her Hart Senate Building office and the elevators. She was in conversation, but her eyes met mine when she was about 30 feet away. She kept talking as she walked, but kept almost continuous eye contact with me as she approached.

When she was about five feet away, she interrupted her own conversation. “Hi, how are you?” she said with a smile. She didn’t slow down, and immediately after passing me, she continued the conversation with her aide. The rhythm of that exchange, the glint in her eye, the slight smile, and the extended connection combine for what campaign consultants call a “hot connect.”

No real information was exchanged — only feelings, affirmation and endorsement.

Bill Clinton is the modern master of the hot connect. My son and I went to Mac Court to see him when he campaigned for Bill Bradbury. He ended his time by pressing the flesh, and I mean that literally. I left impressed at how fleshy his hand was. My son was thrilled to have touched a sitting president. Hundreds left with the same impression. Add to that — and this is important — we all left Mac Court believing Clinton enjoyed himself.

Clinton’s wife Hillary is not known for her ability to make that hot connect. She much prefers the intellectual exchange, also known as the “cold connect.” She excels at winning arguments, but I don’t believe she would have made anything but momentary eye contact if she had been the one walking toward me in the Hart hallway.

That doesn’t make her a bad person — only a bad politician.

The conversation with her aide would have been what mattered to her, deserving her undivided attention. You couldn’t successfully argue with her otherwise. She’d win the argument but lose the voter.

During a New Hampshire debate in 2008, Barack Obama famously reassured her, “You’re likable enough,” but he may have already been thinking about her as his Secretary of State.

Hillary could be a very good president, but not unless she’s first a successful presidential candidate. That’s where most of the doubt lies.

Last week’s imbroglio was about her emails during her tenure as Secretary of State is the same drama we’ve seen play out over and over again. She obviously prizes her privacy and no one can blame her, after all she’s been through.

But privacy isn’t one of the perks afforded a president of the United States — even less so a candidate for the job. We can’t ask her to give up her privacy, but we can ask her to find a different line of work that will fit her comforts better.

No Democrat dares to run against her for the 2016 nomination, but she and other Democrats know the party would benefit from a campaign that sharpens talking points and raises awareness. No Democrat wants to oppose a woman seeking the highest office in the land, much less one who has coveted the job for her whole adult life.

But there might be a way.

Only three Democrats have the star-power to share the stage with Hillary Clinton: Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Al Gore. Experts think only Warren can realistically raise enough money to mount a credible challenge, although Gore is now richer than Mitt Romney, so that offers a new sort of intrigue.

But what if one of them could gain Hillary’s consent to challenge her? No one would be asked to throw the match, because both would recognize the winner will be strengthened by the competition. If Hillary could be protected from the downside of losing, she might welcome the struggle with uncharacteristically open arms.

Her devotion to public service is genuine, so what job would give her that comfort?

Imagine Hillary Clinton as a Supreme Court justice — fighting for verdicts behind closed doors, shaping the nation’s direction for the rest of her active life. It could happen only if a president pledged absolute loyalty all the way to a Senate floor vote, but then Hillary would have what Hillary really wants: public service, job security, and near-absolute secrecy.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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